In 20 years in the vegetable garden, I've learned that one of the biggest determinants of success is the variety. Different varieties of the same vegetable range almost unbelievably in terms of hardiness and flavor. And catalogs can only offer the crudest guide to what to plant.
For example, I don't care how much the catalogs rave about the flavor of 'Brandywine' tomatoes. Except in the hottest and driest year, 'Brandywines' taste like nothing much when they are grown in my boggy, cold garden. Other tomatoes, on the other hand, are total stars for me.
As a result, I seem to buy more seed every year, because I have to have the varieties that have really proven themselves in my yard…and yet feel compelled to keep experimenting, too, trekking on towards some vegetable Shangri-La.
So I don't know why I've never done it before, but this year, I finally sent in my $40 and became a member of the Seed Savers Exchange, the Iowa-based not-for-profit dedicated to saving disappearing heirloom seed varieties.
There are many excellent reasons for the civic-minded to support this group, but there are also excellent reasons for variety connoisseurs to hop to it, namely the "Seed Savers 2010 Yearbook," in which Listed Members (I suspect this is like being a Made Man in the mob) offer 13,571 unique varieties to the general membership.
I could easily quit my job and give away my kids in order to order my vegetable seeds from the Yearbook, one kind at a time, each from a different grower. But I'll have to exercise some self-discipline and concentrate on essentials. For example, as tends to happen with me, I ate all my seed stock of a soup pea called 'Amplissimo Viktoria' that I really like for hummus. I can only find it available commercially from Fedco Seeds. In 2009, Fedco had a crop failure. This year, Fedco only had limited stock. By the time I ordered my seeds in early January, it was sold out of 'Amplissimo.'
But my Seed Savers Yearbook lists one grower for 'Amplissimo Viktoria' and three for 'Amplissimo Viktoria Ukrainskaya.' They include somebody in Vermont, whose growing conditions are likely to be similar to my own.
And, like the sprightly Fedco catalog, the Seed Savers Yearbook includes some really fun writing. Check out this kale listing from Andrew Still of the Seed Ambassadors Project, an Oregon group dedicated to "collecting and disseminating biodiversity":
Extremist Agreements has a crossed-up, diverse genepool mix of napus kales: Red Ursa, White Russian, Dwarf Siberian and Delaway…as many plant breeders suggest, we have taken all the extremists and put them in a room together in order to see what kind of agreement they come up with, hopefully some new and exciting rearrangements of traits and nothing but tasty hardy kale.
Taking all the extremists and locking them in a room…kind of describes my garden.
Or how about a variety of horseradish called 'Old Hobo,' listed by another grower and described this way, "from my great grandpa, who got it from a real railroad hobo back in 1906 or earlier from the C&O railroad tracks in front of our farm."
I know that Garden Rant readers mostly spend their weeks reading Tolstoy, but me, I like to fall asleep wondering what that hobo was doing carrying horseradish root in his pocket. Was he a ridiculous optimist just certain that somewhere in the next town was somebody who'd spring for a steak? And he'd be ready.